CW: This piece contains references to self-harm and sexual assault
The position of the new tattoo is pure coincidence. The stencil is hard to place; the sensitive skin near the elbow ditch is risky for blackwork, particularly on someone pale. The design feels too long, and wraps awkwardly. I do not notice, until the purple stencil blurs into my skin, stinking of ethanol, that the design criss-crosses over a set of scars. I point this out to the artist as breezily as I can, in the hopes of evading suspicion. She doesn’t seem to care.
At fifteen, my dad notices an experimental burn on my hand. He pries. When answers are not forthcoming, he—eternal fixer—offers that there is aloe vera gel in the bathroom. For about three months, I had been playing with self harm like a different teenager might have played with makeup— Does this look right? Is this me?
In the waiting area, I am given the standard release— I have eaten today, I am not epileptic, everything that goes wrong will be my responsibility. I sign my name a few paragraphs beneath a line that reads: I do not have medical or skin conditions such as but not limited to: acne, scarring (keloid), eczema, psoriasis, freckles, moles or sunburn in the area to be tattooed that may interfere with the tattoo. The body demands concessions. It has marks of its own.
I wear the burns openly at fifteen, and I lie openly about them, too. People ask, and I lie, but I never intentionally cover them. There is no response I expect or hope to elicit, there is no reasoning offered, there is no reasoning there. When I dodge again, he says something about bloody dramatics and then, what, do you want it to scar?
My dad is worried about me. He is angry and embarrassed. By burning myself, I have barged from one category into the next—from daughter, to self harming daughter. He is marked by relation.
Another tattoo, a year earlier: the artist alters the design slightly to accommodate a freckle on my upper arm. That one looks like a bleeder, Marian says. The design goes on fine, circumventing the difficult thing without compromising the linework. There are things we skirt around for fear of damage— not of damaging the thing, but fear that the damaged thing will mar the whole.
Denise Riley writes:
The wounded fall in the direction of their wound in the sense that the injury, if narrated enough and without transformation, has the terrible capacity to embrace and to infiltrate the whole person. Willingly or not, I advertise myself as scarred.
It is common practice to refuse to tattoo over scars. This isn’t due to squeamishness, or emotional discomfort; tattooing over scars is a technical challenge. Tattoo ink doesn’t sit as easily or as well on scarred skin, and often requires a second application after it has healed. The outcome is just unpredictable, when you are negotiating with a body that already bears marks. Zoe tells me this while she is bent over my arm, sinking a shading needle into a decade-old burn.
At 22, a therapist floats the suggestion of bipolar disorder. I listen, unwillingly, and she knows that. She has worked under the assumption of this diagnosis, she tells me, since our second session, after I drew a graph to explain my energy levels over time— a long, steep incline, then a drop. I hardly remember it. She tells me she thinks about that graph often. She tells me some of the signs she has taken note of over the years—whether I am late or early, where I sit, how I comport myself. Whether or not I wear lipstick. I try to catalogue every comment she has made about my lateness, my position, my body, my makeup. I can’t. Like the graph, only the ramifications remain. Three weeks later my diagnosis is confirmed by a psychiatrist with antibacterial soap on his desk, and five degrees on his wall. I find it comforting that one of them is an Arts degree. I need to believe that he understands the role of narrative in all this.
I take a photo of the new tattoo, before it swells and splits and peels. I’m riding high on the adrenaline of three hours inking, and the exhilaration of the new mark; I want to show everyone. I realise that every photo of the tattoo is a photo of a scar, both the dark lines, and what lies underneath, the thing that spills out the sides, offering a context I’m not sure I want to advertise.
The psychiatrist who diagnoses me with bipolar disorder tells me I am a typical case, experiencing depression as a teenager, with manic symptoms first presenting in the early twenties. I do not rapid cycle, I no longer self harm. He expresses surprise that I don’t fit the criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder. I see a lot of young women whose therapists think they’re bipolar, he says. You have the risk factors, but not the symptoms, not the behaviours. All signifier, and no signified.
At a party, a man I hardly know grabs me by the waist and pulls me into an empty bathtub. Even in the moment, I am struck by how ridiculous I must look in my helplessness, trapped like a bug on its back. He does not stop when I start crying. He stops when I scream. A friend asks: why did you go into the bathroom with him? As she tries to diagram the evening. I don’t know why A or B, only that eventually, C. The next day I discover dark purple fingerprints scored into my inner thigh. I take photos for a police report I never file. A week later, the bruises are yellow and green. Not long after that, they are gone.
There’s a fine but vital line to be drawn here-between taking on a self-description as if it both delineated and guaranteed my very soul, and taking it on as transient, as contingent, as able to be superseded and not definitive of me.”
In the winter after I turn 24, my friend dies. I help clean the house, inhaling Ajax and potato gems and barely exhaling at all, for a week straight. We close the curtains, strip the bed, and later we get high and try to get into the flooded basement. Her housemate tattoos ocean waves and a moon above my right knee as thanks. This one takes so long to heal—raised, and never peeling, inconsolable, for months. Eventually the scab comes off in one unbroken piece, so perfect I half expect to see clean skin beneath.
There are still days when the tattoo is itchy and raised. Someone suggests that this is because the needle went too deep, and damaged a nerve. I leave red weals over it with absent-minded scratching. A healed tattoo is a scar, too; the ink just mediates it. I am retreading my skin almost by accident. When that winter ends, a therapist tells me I am experiencing post traumatic stress. That is a mark my body can’t place.
What is so terrible about advertising your scars? There is a part of me that needs to mourn the transformation of the body in all its iterations, this body that refuses to stay the same. At the counter I pay with cash, and Zoe runs through aftercare instruction like clockwork; leave it wrapped for two hours, clean it twice a day, wear sunscreen, let it heal. Now it exists, the mark and its transformations are my responsibility.
In our last session, my therapist refers me to another psychiatrist. Labels are only useful as long as they’re useful, she tells me. She wonders aloud if I would benefit from an updated diagnosis. This time, she doesn’t tell me what she thinks it would be. I surprise myself with the wave of defensiveness and loss I feel. It’s never a label I wanted, but it has been one of the most important and transformative narratives of my life, one that offered me context. Without it, all I have are marks. I tell my therapist that I am unhappy with our session. She texts me to say that she feels a different therapist might be a better fit, going forward. I do not seek a second opinion.
Transformation is largely not a choice—the body changes, and that change brings marks, called or uncalled for. The act of deciding prioritises event over object. It is true to say that I am a wounded self. There are marks that bear testament to it, with one kind of permanence. But sitting next to that, faltering over it, is another kind of permanence: that the wound transforms, and will transform, again and again. When you mark your body on purpose, that mark throws the body’s constant transformations into relief. Even under blackwork, a scar transforms line, colour, and texture—even a small scar, or a shameful one, even one you half forgot was there. We respond to our wounds, and as we go on, the response is what we have left. A scar is not a wound; it is the narrative of the body that comes next.
A tattoo is no more intact than a body, either. I can see fine white hairs regrowing through the blackwork, like they always, impossibly, do. People comment on the design. Nobody mentions the scar. The conversation is still happening, though, as the marks recontextualise each other, and me. A tattoo isn’t permanent; it might be an epitaph for permanence. Here lie the summer freckles, faded. Childhood, in all its parts. The wound that became a scar. The tattoo that sits next to and over it. The marks we make don’t define us, they bear witness to us. In them is our transforming, begrudging, predictable, willing, intractable, into whatever comes next.
Jini Maxwell is part tamagotchi, part eldritch ocean thing. She writes comics, poetry, and non-fiction in Melbourne.